Straight up the mountain the Humvee drove.
John Williams, the keynote speaker at the Veterans Day ceremony Monday in front of the Centre County Courthouse, remembers the trip well.
Wearing fresh lieutenant’s bars, he tried to stay cool as he and the Marine communication specialists under his command hurtled toward a high plateau to set up a radio repeater during a training exercise in California’s Mojave Desert.
Williams kept his composure until the lance corporal driving shot past the plateau and rocketed toward a seemingly flat spot at the summit. That did it. Shouts to stop brought the Humvee to a grinding halt, and it backed down the plateau to safety.
Minutes later, Williams and the driver walked instead to the crest.
“His knees buckled when he saw that it was a 150-foot cliff going straight down to hard rock and stone,” Williams said.
That same exercise, five Marines died in a helicopter crash — a sobering reminder to the junior lieutenant about his chosen occupation.
“It really struck home: ‘Wow, this is dangerous, even in times of peace,’ ” Williams said.
Williams, who rose to become a captain and now works at Penn State as the director of information technology services, shared memories of his military career with the crowd gathered at the Diamond for one of the local tributes to veterans.
The event included patriotic songs by the Bellefonte Area High School marching band, the traditional placing of a commemorative wreath at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, a rifle salute from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1600 ceremonial detail, and echoing taps played by two buglers.
For his remarks, Williams said, a fellow veteran suggested he “keep it personal.” Williams followed the advice, recalling experiences from stateside duty in California and Camp Lejeune, N.C., to service in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1990 during the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations against Iraq.
A Milesburg native who graduated from Penn State two years before going to war, Williams said support from home makes a difference to active duty personnel.
“In a time of war, I’ve witnessed, personally, Marines struggle and suffer, not because of anything to do with the military or the exercises,” Williams said. “I’ve seen troubles at home cripple the fighting men and women of this nation. They start to question what’s more important, and are so distracted from their duties, accidents happen, causing people to get hurt.”
During his time abroad, he said, he drew comfort from knowing his wife could rely on “a long list” of friends, relatives, Marine spouses, members of his church and others for comfort and help.
“I didn’t have to worry about home issues because of these people,” Williams said. “I could focus on my task, and for that, I am eternally grateful.”
One of the many veterans in attendance, Carroll Dixon, of Bellefonte, served in the Navy from 1955 to 1958 on the destroyer USS Brownson. He proudly recalled his parents’ giving him his first Veterans of Foreign Wars post membership card as a 21st birthday gift.
He said he honors his father, who served in the Army in Europe during World War II, and his fellow veterans by attending Veterans Day events.
“I appreciate them, and I enjoy coming to them,” he said. “You meet a lot of people you don’t see during the year.”
Williams said people don’t have to wait to show respect for veterans. They can offer “that personal touch” of a mowed lawn, a ride to a medical appointment, a dropped off meal or an invitation to dinner.
“We all know military people are proud, pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps type people, and they might not accept it,” Williams said. “But try. Offer it anyways.”
He left the crowd with another call to action.
Comparing his own six-month overseas stay, he said military personnel today bear the hardship of extended and repeat tours of duty.
“We should be covering for them in their absence, making sure their families are taken care of,” Williams said.
“So I proclaim on this day of remembrance, this Veterans Day, let us make it personal. Let’s make Centre County a county of people who care for military personnel, our veterans and their families.”